Spirit level: my first SUP yoga experience

Elizabeth Gowing tells her story of trying to keep dry on a tiny piece of Styrofoam mat in the middle of a lake in Nottingham.

The sea is an active member of the Port Isaac community, like an elderly relative always sat in the corner and whose moods of anger or placidity set the tone for the day. It’s a business partner for fishermen and the tourist trade; it’s an artist’s model and it’s a playmate. Never had I thought it could be a yoga teacher.

But then I read about stand-up paddleboard, or SUP, yoga. The idea seemed absurd – I had enough diffi culty balancing in some poses when I was held up by the splintery solidity of the village hall floorboards. And I had never even Stood Up on a Paddleboard, let alone lunged on one or waged Warrior on it.

Added to this, I have a difficult relationship with watersports. I love the sea and am a competent if unenthusiastic swimmer, but when I went in a canoe as a child I had a frightening experience combining the panic of claustrophobia with the trauma of public failure and social embarrassment. I was probably eight at the time and had gone out on the water with the sons of family friends who were older and far more capable than me. I couldn’t follow their instructions, set my small craft lurching with every attempt to get moving, and then tried vainly – and dangerously – to get out of the canoe, which only set them shouting at me more, their voices bouncing with a distorted jeer off the water’s surface. As I struggled further, the voices were joined by those of our parents watching from the shore (possibly only a few metres away, but in my memory too, too far), and a private incompetence seemed to be rapidly transforming into public humiliation.

With one exception – a whim when on my own by a glassy and isolated lake in Canada as an adult – I hadn’t taken anything smaller than a boat out on the water since. No surfboards, no kayaks, and certainly nothing as unforgiving as a stand-up paddleboard.

I explained this to Cassie as we stood on the edge of a lake in Nottingham. She seemed unbothered at having at her side a rookie seeking closure for their experience of childhood distress. ‘You’ll be fine!’ she said breezily. ‘Really, you will.’

Why is it that we trust some people instinctively? In wobbly moments over the next hour the thought did occur to me that I knew nothing about Cassie’s credentials, though I later read about her YogaAlliance and RNLI lifesaving qualifications. But she’d said I’d be fine. And I was. She’d said I’d be fine. So I was.

I wondered whether it was related to us being similar. Similar age, similar build. This was a bit like having a dialogue with my better self. It was also definitely helped by the fact that, despite my visions of attempting Dancer pose while being rocked by waves, my session with Cassie took place on a lake of reassuringly still waters in Nottingham.

It wasn’t my first visit to Nottingham, but reflecting on my previous visits – for National College of School Leadership training, and a christening – I worried that this would turn out to be a dangerous mixture of the two. I really didn’t want to be baptised today. Cassie’s instructions ahead of the class had inspired confidence (‘you won’t need to wear a wetsuit; wear your regular fitness gear’) but still left room for a fear that dragged at me like wet clothes (‘bring a change of outfit, just in case’).

‘You seem nervous,’ my taxi driver had said as we drove from the station to the lake, and I’d had to admit that he was right. I explained what I was travelling to the lake for and he was interested to learn about yoga. ‘This is a good city,’ he said. ‘You learn about other religions here, not just in theory but in practice.’ He had been born in Nottingham but had then moved to Heathrow to work at the airport. He’d come back home because he liked it here – ‘a peaceful city,’ as he said. But now he was on the verge of another move, with the possibility of going back to London where a friend was offering the opportunity for him to work as a cab driver with better pay. But to do that he’d have to leave his wife and his kids, aged ten and eight, while he set up their new life in the capital. ‘Every action has a reaction,’ he said wisely. ‘And what might seem like the best thing to do for my family’s future might bring about a reaction that makes things worse for them now.’

The philosophy ran in my head – and rippled around my feet – as I took my first unsteady step onto the paddleboard. The board looked flimsy in the water – more like a piece of toast kept afloat by chance before the ducks got it than a plinth which I could inhabit and move around on for the next hour. Cassie showed me how to ease onto it, holding my centre of gravity low. I got onto it on my knees and shuffled into place, keeping the middle of my body over the stripe down the middle of the board, and the paddleboard’s handle under my tummy button as I’d been told. Each shuffle brought a lurch from the board and the feeling of a surge below me; every action a reaction.

I stopped to take stock… which was a bad thing to do because the point at which I stopped was a point at which my middle was not over the middle of the board. Everything tilted, and with a wave of pondweed smell (weed, like the past tense of ‘to urinate’) memories came into focus of that Welsh waterside more than thirty years before.

But today I had Cassie. She didn’t shout at me and she didn’t laugh at me, and eventually we got an anchor weighed to hold the board fast, and got me lying down on my back on the board. That was not before I had got my feet wet in a slosh of water that came onto the paddleboard. Despite the water’s surprisingly silken touch on my toes, never had the Shavasana position seemed so hard-won.

Cassie told me we would start with some relaxation.

‘So first check whether you’re storing any tension,’ she said, and instead of releasing, the muscles of my face twitched into an involuntary smile.

Tension? Of course I’m storing flipping tension! I’m trying to keep dry on a tiny bit of Styrofoam in the middle of a lake. I’m trying to face down childhood demons even though they’re sneaking up on me to tug me into the deeps with every shift of my body.

Nevertheless, I tried to scan my body, to let go (but not of that magic line drawn on the board to which I had to keep symmetrical). My board drifted under a willow tree so that light came to me dappled, and occasionally a leaf tickled my face while I lay like Ophelia, thinking about ‘muddy death’.

I had looked at an information board near the lake before the class started, and the list of plants I could get tangled up in made for great Anglo-Saxon poetry. Bogbean, lesser water parsnip, water dropwort, fool’s watercress, spike-rush, common club-rush… I called myself all of these things and worse for attempting to negotiate with water when we had come to such a definite stand-off more than three decades ago.

Round my ankle was a Velcro cuff attached to a long tough leash, so I wouldn’t lose the board even if I fell in. It made me feel like Princess Leia with the water as Jabba. I was aware of feeling enslaved, and not in a good way.

Cassie’s voice floated around me – she was steering her own board to keep up with the wandering course of mine – as she talked me through deep breathing. Her words got distorted off the water and the end of her sentences came from a different direction from where she’d started speaking.

It was how I imagined the voice of God might sound – giving reassuring instructions from everywhere and nowhere. I could feel myself starting to settle. Perhaps I wasn’t going to drown today. Perhaps I wouldn’t even make a fool (or a bogbean) of myself.

My mind was wandering and I focused as Cassie directed me gently but firmly into a Tabletop position. This was the first time I had ever been in a yoga class one-to-one, and I realised there was nowhere to hide. When the lady on YouTube said ‘pull your abdominal muscles in’ it was a remote suggestion recorded by someone who might be on the other side of the globe, and whom I would never meet. Frankly, I could push my tummy out, go and make a cup of tea, or just switch her to silent if I wanted. In the village hall when Tracey had told us to pull in our abdominals, she had cast her eye around the group, and as a teacher myself used to thirty primary school pupils I knew she could, and would, note any obvious rebels or stragglers, but the precise position of an individual’s abdominals was really for them to decide. Here there was no escape. ‘No, pull them in more than that,’ came the disembodied voice across the water. ‘That’s it!’ She was watching me.

And even if she hadn’t been, there was an even more attentive teacher just waiting to ripple me over the knuckles if I didn’t hold my Tabletop pose symmetrically; the irrefutable feedback of the lake’s meniscus told me immediately if I wasn’t keeping straight. My SUP had become an enormous spirit level. Shavasana had seemed like a triumph, but to hold Tabletop pose was true victory. This was pretty much officially a yoga position. And I was doing it on the water! Cassie saw my back straightening in satisfaction.

‘Oh, we’ll get you doing more than that,’ she promised, and talked me through the movements into a pose she called Wild Thing, and then into the beginnings of Bridge pose. ‘Just be careful,’ she warned with the slightest of tremors in her voice. ‘I did once have a woman in class who went into Bridge pose and then up into a shoulder stand and back into Plough… and off the end of the board.’

Despite the tremor I managed an adapted Side Plank (bottom leg bent under me for support), an adapted Triangle pose (again, with the back leg kneeling on the board), and a Warrior series with my back leg still anchoring me.

In between, I even freed up some mental space to be able to talk to Cassie. She said that she did also teach what she called ‘matted yoga’; the word and the way she used it made it sound clotted and tangled in comparison with what we were doing today; it made me feel combed out and free. And she said she’d experimented with other approaches to yoga too, leading naked yoga classes and yoga in nearby caves. Suddenly what I was doing with her here today seemed really quite straightforward.

Finally, she got me up on my feet, and with pride and poise I held a standing Warrior pose above the swirling green of the lake. I looked out along the fleshy waves around the muscle and bone of my forward arm, and felt my drishti focus piercingly on a waterside in 1981. I looked it full in the eye, and then very gently withdrew my gaze and my arms, and Cassie talked me through paddling the board back to shore.


More information

Want to read more of Elizabeth’s yoga experiences around Britain? Take a look at her book, Unlikely Positions (in Unlikely Places)

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